And to be perfectly blunt, it won’t be ending anytime soon.
Pretty much everyone who knows me is mindful of the fact that I’ll never refuse a luxe milk chocolate bar or a bag of original Ruffles potato chips, especially when the latter is adjacent to a carton of sour cream.
However, this binging has nothing to do with anything edible.
Thanks to the wonder of the Internet, specifically YouTube, I’ve been watching—sometimes for more than a couple of hours at a time—the original What’s My Line television show.
Making its debut on the CBS Television Network from New York City, on February 16, 1950, WML (as its devotees like to call it) was, like so many of the best things still around, based on a simple premise.
It went like this.
A contestant came out to the stage and signed his name on a large blackboard. Then, depending on what year the show aired, he would shake hands with each of the four panelists, or later, as the seasons progressed, skip that step and sit next to the host. So everyone watching could play along, the guest’s occupation was next revealed via closed caption to both the studio audience and viewers at home.
After that, the game would begin in earnest.
Each panelist would attempt to figure out what the challenger did for a living—i.e. his “line”--by asking that person basic yes-or-no questions. Once the guest answered 10 questions in the negative, the game ended, and he won a whopping $50. The show was an unhurried affair with lots of wiggle room for conversation, so usually there were just two or three challengers per show, not counting the last participant. (Check out this terrific clip, only a few years before this guest was instantly recognizable around the world, at www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wk4Eq8IcQMk.)
The best part of WML was that final contestant (although sometimes that person came in the middle of the show).
Panelists were instructed to put on eye masks, and then, “our mystery guest,” pretty much always someone famous, came waltzing out, often to wild applause. Here, panelists had to determine the person’s identity, so these special challengers also disguised their voices, perhaps whistling, honking a horn, or speaking in an unusual accent.
In a time when top movie stars hardly ever made it a habit to enter a lowly television studio, WML booked some of the biggest personalities of the day.
There was Kirk Douglas, John Wayne and Frank Sinatra, who was once even a guest panelist. Audiences were also thrilled to see Claudette Colbert, Kim Novak and Jane Fonda, who had just finished her first movie. (Here she is, just 22 years old, a bit awed and surprised that anyone would even recognize her, at www.youtube.com/watch?v=GM4BEskQeeY)
Oh, did I mention that What’s My Line went on to become the longest-running game show in prime-time network television history?
In fact, the series ran for 17 seasons on Sunday nights, always on CBS. The network finally pulled the plug in 1967, but less than a year later, WML was resurrected as a syndicated program, and stayed around until 1975. Many of its die hard fans, and I’m in this camp, were not exactly thrilled with the reboot, since the new What’s My Line now boasted silly skits and a good dose of slapstick.
Still, how could a little game this simple (and frankly, painfully low budget) have entertained millions of television viewers for more than two decades?
The answer, I think, lies in its remarkable panel.
Each of those four members, with a big boost from host John Charles Daly, worked to create a unique atmosphere and chemistry that couldn’t help but make the show anything but witty, intelligent and sophisticated. Indeed, it felt as if once the cameras were turned off , all would regroup at a swank Manhattan penthouse, where they would discuss world events while sipping martinis and sampling exotic hors d’oeuvres.
As a matter of fact, the first broadcast featured a Park Avenue psychiatrist, a poet and a former governor as panel members. The fourth panelist that night, and the only woman, was popular radio hostess and newspaper columnist Dorothy Kilgallen, who stayed until her sudden passing in 1965. (Read more about what some believe is Kilgallen’s mysterious death, at http://mcadams.posc.mu.edu/death4.htm)
The second female to join the group was radio and stage actress Arlene Francis, introduced on the show’s second telecast. She nearly always wore a diamond heart pendant, a gift from her husband, and was the only member who stayed on until the very end of WML. Francis also wore gorgeous, Oscar worthy evening gowns, which were accessorized with matching clutch purses. Complementing these two women was the 1951 appearance of dapper Bennett Cerf, a founder of Random House Books, who was also known for his compilations of jokes and (mostly terrible) puns.
This trio became the WML regulars for 15 years, with a smattering of terrific guest panelists along the way that included radio superstar Fred Allen, a young Woody Allen and even, in his dreamboat phase, William Shatner.
Host John Charles Daly also brought an urbane elegance to the proceedings.
For one thing, Daly treated each contestant with the utmost respect, always addressing the challenger by his or her last name. Daly was hardly a typical game show emcee: he was a working journalist, having been a CBS Radio Network reporter and in that capacity, the first national correspondent to deliver the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Indeed, Daly thought that What’s My Line would only be a postscript in his already distinguished career, having been told that the show couldn’t possibly last longer than six months. But Daly ended up helming WML for the entire 17 years it was on CBS, and even became a vice president of what was then the fledgling ABC network during some of the same period.
The 1950s has been called the Golden Age of Television, and for my money, WML falls squarely into that milieu. I wasn’t even a gleam in my parents’ eyes when the show premiered, and I was barely out of nursery school when the decade that brought the Korean War, President Dwight Eisenhower and I Love Lucy ended.
But I’m so happy that thanks to today’s technology, I can now watch The Very Best Game Show in the Whole Wide World pretty much whenever I want.
For that, I am a most appreciative fan.
I’d love to hear about your favorite television shows, both past and present!
p.s. The What’s My Line Facebook Group boasts nearly 2,500 members. Check it out here, at www.facebook.com/groups/728471287199862/?fref=ts.